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A decade after DACA, some Dreamers flourish but face ‘uncertain’ future

In the decade since the Obama administration created the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policy to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation, those high school students and college-age kids have grown into adults with careers and families, a new report shows.

“We think about populations like DACA recipients the way we first thought of them, without realizing that they grow older, too,” said Phillip Connor, senior demographer at FWD.us, a criminal justice and immigration reform organization that released the report.

But even as their jobs, their children and their community activities stitch DACA recipients more firmly into the fabric of American society, an uncertain legal future threatens to unravel the lives they’ve built.

Meanwhile, a new generation of immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and are undocumented – often called Dreamers – can’t access the same protections under DACA, a policy fast becoming a relic from a bygone era.

A millennial workforce

DACA was always supposed to be temporary. Crafted in 2012, the policy didn’t grant citizenship, but it gave some young undocumented immigrants protection from deportation and permission to work in the United States.

About 611,000 young people are currently protected under DACA. They must meet certain criteria to qualify, including being under 31 years old as of June 2012 and having arrived in United States before turning 16. They must renew their status periodically.

Ten years ago, nearly half of approved DACA applicants were enrolled in high school or college; the average DACA recipient age was 21.

A decade later, this group looks much different. The average age is 28, and DACA recipients have spent an average of 22 years in the United States. Only about 3% are now high school age.

The FWD report crunched U.S. Census Bureau data and found that among those who received DACA status in 2012 and still had active DACA status in 2022:

  • 85% of are in the labor force and 15% are in school
  • 99% have graduated high school
  • 47% have at least some college education
  • 37% are married
  • 42% have children

Frozen in time

DACA recipients are, for the most part, a group frozen in time. Thanks to several legal challenges, DACA’s requirements haven’t changed since 2012. The number of people who are still eligible for DACA now represent a fraction of America’s 2.8 million Dreamers.

For example, said Connor, the requirement that a person had to have entered the U.S. before 2007 to qualify for DACA bars anyone under age 15 from applying.

“Kids that were born in 2008 are now freshmen in high school,” he said. “We found that of the 100,000 undocumented high school graduates in 2022, only a quarter of them would be eligible for DACA now – if the government was processing new applications, which they aren’t.”

DACA on the ropes

In 2021, a federal judge in Texas ruled DACA unlawful, barring the government from accepting new applications. Only current DACA recipients can renew their status, which happens every two years.

The Biden Administration has appealed the ruling and a decision is expected in days or weeks – but it’s not expected to be one that Dreamers want to hear. Connor said it’s likely the appeals court will rule against DACA, meaning recipients would lose their employment authorization.

In addition to the effect on recipients themselves, DACA’s demise could significantly impact the U.S. labor force, already dealing with a shortage of workers.

“It would mean that for the next two years, you would see about a thousand DACA recipients lose their jobs each business day because they’re no longer qualified to work,” said Connor. “You could see thousands of U.S. citizens with a DACA recipient in their family potentially be separated from them.”

DACA recipients live in every state, the largest share in California and Texas. The majority, about 81%, were born in Mexico. For most, said Connor, the U.S. is the only home they’ve known.

Legislative protections for Dreamers haven’t materialized. And with DACA on the ropes, the future for DACA recipients and their families looks perilous.

“This is a serious time and a very uncertain one, and one that Congress needs to deal with immediately, by the end of the year,” said Connor.

Anna Claire Vollers

Anna Claire Vollers | avollers@reckonmedia.com

I report mainly on reproductive and maternal health, working parents and family policy at Reckon News.

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